Over the last couple of years two of my children have reached adulthood. This has been really significant milestone in our family. It’s also been a shifting of gears in terms of how my adult children and I relate to one another. More often than not, there are usually some tensions experienced by both parents and adult children as their relationship shifts from the parent being the one to carry active responsibility for the child to one where the child takes on increasingly more responsibility for themselves. I know I have experienced this tension and in that space I experienced some grief with the uncertainty of not knowing what my role would be in my children’s lives. While it can be a really exciting time of seeing your child find their wings and soar in life, it can also be a time of worry, anxiety, grief and uncertainty – for both parents and maturing children. So, given this complex juxtapose in family life, I thought it might be helpful to explore ways to cultivate warm relationships with our adult children.
Research on parent and adult child relationships indicates that most parents and adult children experience some tensions in their relationship as the child approaches adult maturity. A significant part of this tension has positive aspects to it. Such as, the parent/child bond and relationship is one of the longest term human relationships, even if the relationship has been fraught with tension or even abuse. Our first relationship as human beings is with our parents and is foundational to how we cultivate our sense of identity and learn how to relate to others. Parenting brings with it many joys, but also a great deal of frustration, sacrifice and ambivalence which often gives rise to parental guilt. Being loved and cared for by parents gives children comfort, safety and stability but as a child gets older, can feel restrictive and confining. The point I’d like to make, is that experiencing tension in trying to figure out your relationship with your adult child is entirely normal and even to be expected. Tension at this stage of family life is not a sign of failure as parents or that your relationship with your child is ruined. It is simply a sign of your family going through a complex task. The ever wise family systems therapist, Harriet Lerner, reminds us that arrivals and departures in families are big events and so our child becoming an adult and venturing out into the world is a big deal and it’s totally fine, normal and ok if there’s a few gritty edges in that process. Transitions by their very nature are messy and hard.
What is happening at this stage is that both parent and child are trying to negotiate how to be close to one another and how to also be separate individuals. This is about the juggle between separateness and togetherness; of the tightrope between autonomy and connection. Sometimes, as parents we can look at this complex task that only the adult child is navigating. But it’s not just about the child, we as parents who for usually two decades or more, have prioritized the needs of our children over our own now need to decide how we are going to focus a little less on our kids and bring more attention to ourselves, needs, growth and desires.
So, staying warmly connected as parent and adult children begins by bringing our awareness to what’s happening for ourselves. It is so easy when we are worried and anxious to become over focused on the other person and lose all sight of our end of the relationship. Mindfulness can help in this process by helping us first check in with ourselves and just notice, without self-judgement or criticism what are the thoughts we are having. How are we feeling about this change in relationship? What are both the positive and challenging aspects of not having children to look after or parents who are responsible for us anymore? Mindfulness helps us to bring our awareness the part of the relationship we have the most influence over – our end of the relationship, rather than our parents or our child being the source of our irritation, grief, pain or struggle.
It can also be helpful to mark this milestone in some way. Often this is what 18th or 21st birthday parties have been about is the coming of age of the child, but these types of celebrations whilst really fun and enjoyable, don’t give us the space to acknowledge the changing relationship. Some parents and adult children mark this transition with a trip away together. Even just a meal together where we reflect on our relationship over the years and how it might change into the future can be helpful.
The big thing is to just make this transition explicit and to make space for different feelings and perspectives to exist. For my adult children and myself, I have really valued these conversations as it has let me off the hook of any parental guilt over feeling like ‘I’m not doing enough’ and its allowed me to understand my child’s need for space is not a rejection of me. Focusing on myself and engaging with mindfulness has allowed me to focus on my own goals, needs and desires that I have put on the shelf while I was in active parenting mode and to start putting energy into pursuing these parts of myself now that I have more time and space. This has enriched my relationship with my children as we have more to discuss as adults.
Another thing I encourage adult children and parents to do to foster both their relationships and their mutual independence is to schedule time on a regular basis together. For our family, Wednesday night is ‘family dinner night’ where we all make it a priority to spend a meal together and catch up. It keeps us connected with one another but there’s also plenty of time and space during the week where we are doing our own thing which gives us lots to talk about over family dinner.
Family life is never static. It is always evolving, growing and changing. If we can be aware of these changes and make space for them, we can allow our relationships to mature and deepen over time. We can also find that family life is a space in which we can grow to become more of ourselves and not just the sum of our roles and responsibilities.
Marcia is a relationship and family therapist with over ten years of working with couples and families to have rich and rewarding relationships. Marcia has a special interest in supporting remarried couples and blended families go from surviving to thriving and is the author of an upcoming strengths-based book on stepfamilies due for release in November 2017. To find out more about Marcia’s work or to book a time to see her for counselling please visit www.transform2lead.com.au or email Marcia at firstname.lastname@example.org